There’s a plastic playing surface within the confines of Thompson Arena on Dartmouth’s campus in Hanover, N.H., and it serves as an ice substitute for players who are looking to refine their stick-handling. It’s nestled in a corner of the rink, and at one end of the surface, there sits an official hockey goal.
Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet can’t see the surface from his office, but while sitting at his desk, he often hears the repetitive sound of one puck after another bouncing off metal pipe into a net.
“Ding … ding … ding … ding.”
Gaudet doesn’t have to look to see which of his players is getting extra work. Nine times out of 10, it’s junior winger Eric Robinson of Foxboro, Mass.
“He comes in before class in the morning,” Gaudet says of Robinson. “He comes in between classes during the day. And then he’s back up there after practice. Last year, we had seven Dartmouth players — fairly recent graduates — playing significant roles for NHL teams. All of them were among the hardest workers on the team when they were here. Eric fits in that group.”
Robinson appears to have a chance at a career in the NHL, if the surprising opening month of Dartmouth’s season is any indication. The junior had a big hand in Dartmouth’s 5-0-1 start, netting seven goals and two assists in six games. He was named ECAC Hockey Player of the Week for the first week of November. At the time, he led the nation in game-winning goals (3) and goals-per-game average (1.25).
Robinson’s journey to becoming an impact player at the Division 1 level was anything but a straight line. As a high schooler at Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury, Mass., Robinson failed to make the school’s varsity hockey team in both his freshman and sophomore years. He stayed at Catholic Memorial for two more years, but chose to play for the South Shore Kings in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, effectively sacrificing his high school eligibility.
“I never made the team at CM; I couldn’t cut it,” Robinson says. “Most of the kids on the team were good friends of mine, so it was a little awkward being in school and playing hockey somewhere else. They’d tease me once in a while, but the bottom line is I didn’t make the team.”
Robinson also didn’t initially make the Junior A team for the Kings. He spent a half season with the Junior B team before being promoted to the Kings’ version of the varsity. He remained on the A team through the completion of high school, but even by the time he graduated in 2008, he had yet to receive any recruiting interest from a Division 1 college team.
Feeling as if his hockey career was perilously close to running its course, Robinson decided to try out for the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders of the United States Hockey League.
“I went there undrafted, and I didn’t even know if I’d make the team,” Robinson says. “When I made the team, I didn’t know if I’d make it through the year. I almost convinced myself I’d get cut and come back to the EJHL.”
What Robinson found in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was a coach in Marc Carlson who jump-started his career. Carlson sensed Robinson didn’t have the confidence to play Division 1 hockey, so he demanded the Foxboro native invest more of himself to the game. Robinson, a recent high school graduate, had all the time in the world, as he did not have classes or a full-time job.
“I’d get up at 8 in the morning and meet Coach Carlson at the rink,” Robinson says. “I’d work on skills until lunch, then I’d come back for practice. Coach Carlson was good at motivating all of us to work on our game every day. Going out to Cedar Rapids, I didn’t know if I could play Division 1 hockey. Coming out, I was convinced I could make an impact.”
It took two years in Cedar Rapids before Robinson felt that confidence. During his first year, he didn’t receive a single scholarship offer from a college coach. Dartmouth assistants Dave Peters and John Rose eventually initiated contact with Robinson during his second year in the USHL. Carlson says Robinson needed to learn to use his 6-foot-3 frame to his advantage before college coaches would take notice.
“Working on his physical play has been a big part of his maturation as a player,” Carlson says. “He has all the ability in the world. The biggest thing is he improved so much because he worked so hard.”
Peters and Rose sold Gaudet on Robinson’s work ethic, and the staff extended a scholarship offer during Robinson’s second season with the Rough Riders.
“I liked the opportunity to get a really good education and play for an organization with a lot of history and success,” Robinson says. “The biggest thing that appealed to me was I’ve always wanted to play professionally, and Dartmouth has a tradition of guys doing that. But the reality is I didn’t even see the campus before I committed. At the time, Dartmouth was the only school interested in me. I didn’t have to turn down another offer.”
Robinson’s bouts with adversity were not complete just because he had accepted a scholarship offer at Dartmouth. During his first shift as a freshman, he dislocated his shoulder and missed the next five weeks. Even after returning for the final 24 games, he wasn’t as productive as he would have liked. He finished the season with a total of three goals.
Last year was something of a breakout season for Robinson. As a sophomore, he led Dartmouth in goals with 12 and was second in points with 24. This year, playing alongside Tyler Sikura and Matt Lindbland, Robinson has become one of the most productive players in Division 1 hockey.
“Eric’s a really good story,” Gaudet says. “He’s always been able to rip a shot, and we’ve always liked his size. But he is where he is because he works for it. He’s a late bloomer, I guess, but he gets better and better every day. He’s humble, which I like, even when he has all the reason in the world to pat himself on the back.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.